Confronting The Glass Ceiling: Largely Female Population Notwithstanding, Corporate Travel Industry No Better On Gender Equality - Business Travel News

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Confronting The Glass Ceiling: Largely Female Population Notwithstanding, Corporate Travel Industry No Better On Gender Equality

December 17, 2012 - 11:20 AM ET

By Jay Campbell

The European Commission last month proposed a directive requiring publicly listed companies to "raise the proportion of women in non-executive board-member positions to at least 40 percent by 2020." The effort's champion said that even two years ago she opposed quotas, but has taken up their cause after business made no progress on its own.

Women obviously have made gains at the office during the past few decades, but they remain shut out of the most senior positions, contributing to an ongoing pay disparity and festering sexism. Despite its high share of women in middle management and frontline positions, the corporate travel business is no better than average when it comes to gender balance at the highest levels and pay equality throughout.

"It's appalling," said former Loews Hotels executive vice president Charlotte St. Martin, who rose to become one of the highest-ranking female executives in hospitality before joining The Broadway League as executive director in 2006. "At the time I got into the hotel business and was moving up, there were not very many women in, so it was logical you wouldn't have them at the C-level or higher. Now, we have had more than 30 years of women general managers, directors of marketing, chefs, financial officers and it's simply disgusting that they're not advancing. I say that with as much passion as I can put into a word. I even see companies phasing the women out!

"I've never been outspoken about this issue before," St. Martin said in a telephone interview this month. "I was on the other side of the debate early in my career. I said, 'You can't expect people to go from entry level to C-level.' Today, with the sheer number of women employed by the industry, there is no excuse."

Among 16 key business travel suppliers whose boards of directors were disclosed online as of August, less than 13 percent of 157 members were women. A September-October survey by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives and The BTN Group found that 138 U.S.-based male supplier personnel earned $134,000 annually on average, while compensation for 175 female respondents averaged $99,900.

The female travel managers polled in the spring of 2012 for Business Travel News' annual travel manager salary survey earned 65 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts, down from the more than 70 cents recorded in each of the previous four years of that report.

The 2012 BTN poll also found that men managing travel were twice as likely to be vice presidents. Yet, 63 percent of travel managers polled were women. Women represented more than three-quarters of 529 respondents to the Global Business Travel Association 2012 compensation survey released last month. GBTA does not break out salary figures by gender.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 76 percent of meeting, convention and event planners in 2011 were women, as were 64 percent of hotel, motel and resort clerks. The bureau does not poll for travel managers, but among a tangential group, accountants and auditors, 61 percent were women. The bureau's 2009 data showed that women earned 84 cents to the male dollar in hospitality, 79 cents in transportation, 77 cents in professional and business services, 76 cents in the information field and 71 cents in financial roles.

From the Institute of Supply Management's position statement on equal gender compensation and opportunity: "It has been shown in current compensation studies in several countries that inequality, not based upon performance, still exists among certain groups of diverse individuals within the supply management profession. ISM's official position is all equally qualified supply management professionals performing at a similar level should be given equal compensation and opportunity in the workplace without discrimination."

There are broad underlying factors pointing to needed advancement by women, including the loss of many U.S. blue-collar jobs typically held by men, a clear outpacing by women among those getting advanced degrees and a talent crunch in certain sectors.

In the corporate world, the top usually is the best position from which to direct change. But the needle is not moving on women's representation in executive suites, on corporate boards and among the best-paid. Non-executive boards in Europe average 16 percent female membership, according to the European Commission. According to nonprofit advocacy group Catalyst, women held 16 percent of Fortune 500 board seats in 2011.

So, the glass ceiling remains.

In February, a group called the Thirty Percent Coalition launched with the explicit goal of doubling the share of women on corporate boards of directors. Another effort, the Vision 2020 program of the Drexel University College of Medicine Institute for Women's Health and Leadership, has entered its third year of working to increase the number of women in American senior leadership positions.

Debates related to gender equality in corporate environments are enjoying renewed vigor as highlighted by articles and speeches by such high-profile figures as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and former U.S. State Department director of policy planning Anne-Marie Slaughter.

This of course is a highly charged and complicated issue, but several truths are worth examining. These are relevant matters for travel managers, many of whom face them personally and help make company decisions on such related issues as work-life balance.

Women Are Mothers 

Evidence of the disproportionate impact that a full-time career has on women comes from many places. One is a new study by HVS Executive Search and the Cornell School of Hotel Administration's Center for Hospitality Research. Due to be published in the spring 2013 issue of the school's academic journal, the research is based on a four-week, anonymous online survey of 54 men and 45 women who are executives in the hospitality business, mainly at hotel firms.

More than twice as many of the women surveyed than men had never been married. Twenty-seven percent of the women had divorced once, and 13 percent divorced more than once, while 16 percent of the men had divorced once and none divorced more than once. Assuming marriage is a fair proxy for family life, these results suggest executive women in hospitality have more difficulty fitting in family than executive men. This is not because they value family life any less. The survey found no difference between women and men when they were asked to prioritize different aspects of life. Average rankings, in declining order of importance, were family, physical health and well-being, career, personal growth and development, community and spirituality.

A study published in June by Catalyst found that although 15 percent of women versus 20 percent of men agreed that they could use flexible work arrangements without jeopardizing career advancement, 44 percent of women actually used flexible arrival/departure time, versus 36 percent of men.

"Among those who have made it to the top, a balanced life still is more elusive for women than it is for men," wrote Slaughter, now a professor at Princeton, in what became the most popular article ever published online by The Atlantic: "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," from its July/August 2012 print issue. "The proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them. In my experience, that is simply not the case."

A similar conclusion appeared in a Families And Work Institute issue brief published in 2004 by the American Business Coalition (Abbott Laboratories, Deloitte & Touche USA LLP, Exxon Mobil Corp., General Electric, IBM Corp., Johnson & Johnson, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Texas Instruments): "We find that as women move through the life cycle, their relative priorities on work and family change, while this is not the case for men. Employed mothers are significantly less likely to be 'family-centric' and significantly more likely to be 'dual-centric' or 'work-centric' when their children are older, but this is not the case for fathers. These findings support the view that having younger children constrains the commitment that women, but not men, make to paid work."

Chicke Fitzgerald, a travel industry consultant and CEO of Solutionz Holdings, heads up a networking group for executive women called the Executive Girlfriends' Group. "Of our members, more than 90 percent of the corporate executive women are the breadwinners in their home," she noted. "And if there are children still at home, their husbands generally play the 'Mr. Mom' role. Behind the scenes, executive women and those aspiring to the C-suite factor in the cost of childcare in the consideration for the promotion. Those who have successfully balanced motherhood and executive roles often hire a live-in nanny, even if we are fortunate enough to have a Mr. Mom."

For Slaughter, one "basic truth" has been this: "The travel sucks." As Business Travel News explored in its special Oct. 22 issue, "The Frequent Traveler: Finding A Balance," organizations are considering new approaches to managing employee time, emphasizing flexibility in order to retain and attract the less "work-centric" Generation Xers and Millennials. Corporations also are making use of remote conferencing, mobile technology and enterprise social media to streamline communications and trim expenses.

Organizations Are Male 

Juliette Boone, North America managing director at HVS Executive Search, said the Cornell study uncovered "the day-to-day challenges of managing a career no matter who you are have changed. The career path is complicated. Women have a unique set of challenges with respect to family and gender roles. In the past, executives were men and business figured out a way to offer what men needed. Today, business has not figured out the challenges that women have—things like mentorship. The rules and regulations naturally geared towards men have not been adapted. So organizations, and this was voiced by the respondents, need to reinvent themselves to support women's challenges. They need to change their practices. And as men become more present in their families, companies will need to support them, too."

Two years ago, the Center for Work-Life Policy published research on this topic in the Harvard Business Review. Sponsored by American Express, Deloitte, Intel, and Morgan Stanley, the article reminded readers that women "just aren't making it to the very top," and explored "what's keeping them under this last glass ceiling."

"What we uncover in this report is not a male conspiracy, but rather, a surprising absence of male (and female) advocacy," according to the authors. "Women who are qualified to lead simply don't have the powerful backing necessary to inspire, propel and protect them through the perilous straits of upper management. Women lack, in a word, sponsorship."

A more recent study found that leadership style in corporations may be holding back women. Published in August in the American Political Science Review, researchers found that "groups who strive towards consensus decisions, rather than majority rule, see greater female participation," according to a report in ScienceDaily. "Unanimous rule protects minority women, and under this decision rule they take up their equal share of the conversation. When groups decide how to allocate money by majority rule, and there's only one woman in the group, the one woman contributes less than half of her share of the conversation, compared to the men. Under consensus rule-making, that proportion jumps about 50 percent, garnering near equal participation from men and women."

This sort of conclusion could be relevant not only to boards of directors and executive counsels, but also to the cross-functional teams frequently formed by middle management.

Consultants at Hay Group in March announced the results of research that found women were more effective than men in bringing the skills or traits of empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness to management environments—and that these gender disparities were most pronounced at the executive level. Hay Group promotes the merits of a more collaborative than hierarchical management approach as organizations mature and globalize.

Solutionz' Fitzgerald recently interviewed Hanna Rosin, author of the "The End of Men: And The Rise Of Women," who said, "In the new information-driven, service-oriented economy, you basically need intelligence, you need an ability to sit still and focus, to communicate openly, to be able to listen to people and to operate in a workplace that is much more fluid than it used to be—and those are things that women do extremely well." Fostering creativity and building consensus, Rosin noted, are important skills in the C-suite.

"Top executive opportunities are few especially if the woman is narrowly qualified for a specific role such as marketing, IT, finance, sales," noted Kathy Misunas, founder of the consulting firm Essential Ideas and former Sabre and Reed Travel Group CEO and American Airlines CIO. "It is important to obtain leadership skills, as well as target a broader range of departmental responsibilities so as to be well-rounded when the top jobs become open. Finding a mentor in the current executive ranks helps so you are top of mind when promotional situations arise."

A supporting corporate ethos helps, too. Google head of travel Jane Butler, a mother of two, attributed her success to a company culture in which "executive success and family" are "not an either/or for women, but an 'and,' " according to Fitzgerald.

Slaughter referenced a masculine attitude about competition to "work harder, stay later, pull more all-nighters, travel around the world," and said in a Reuters interview that, "We need to offer more flexibility in the workplace so people can stay in the game. And we need to make sure people don't pay a penalty down the road when they make a lateral move for family reasons—it just means they are delaying a promotion." She acknowledged that some positions simply cannot offer flexibility.

Slaughter mainly attacks organizations, while another recent speaker on the issue, Facebook's Sandberg, in 2010 and 2011 made widely publicized speeches in which she pointed a finger at women. How they behave in and around the time of their lives when it's virtually impossible to balance work and home life—the child-bearing years—can have a profound impact on their advancement, she argued.

"People talk about flex time," said Sandberg, whose book "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" is due out in March. "That's all really important, but I want to focus on what we can do as individuals." Keeping women in the workforce, she said, requires them to not "leave before [they] leave."

"From the moment she is thinking about having a child, she starts thinking about making room for that child," said Sandberg, critiquing what she described as typical behavior. "She doesn't raise her hand anymore, she starts leaning back." Sandberg also noted that women tend to underestimate their own abilities and are less likely to take credit for success. Instead, she argued, women should "keep your foot on the gas pedal until the very day you need to leave to take care of a child."

Elizabeth Neumann Co. vice president Nicole Hackett and Sapient global travel manager Michelle De Costa touched on some of these factors in September during The Beat Quarterly webcast featuring gender issues. Hackett called on "associations and media companies to invite more women to speak and write columns and also, within their companies, for women to get more of a voice via task forces, etc."

De Costa said, "You have to put yourself out there and ask questions and provoke change. As women I think sometimes we fail to do that. Quality work is required, but it's also about making sure people know what you're producing and what you're capable of."

Sexism Persists 

"I agree with the points made by each of the women writing and speaking on the topic," wrote Sue Powers, a semi-retired consultant and former C-level executive at Worldspan and Travelport, in an email answering questions for this report. "However, I am convinced that each of those points are consequences of the root cause, sexism. Sexism operates on an unconscious level and I am sure no male executive believes he is sexist. In my experience, even the most enlightened man will assume, for example, the mother of a young child won't want to accept a promotion that requires extensive travel, a move or long hours—not making the same assumption for a father of a young child. Other women executives must challenge that behavior—just reinforce that we shouldn't assume, but ask.

"In selecting an executive team or board member, a key criteria is compatibility with the other team members, typically, as the data proves out, leading selection to another man," according to Powers. "The fact that the root issue is an unspoken and unacknowledged belief, almost a core value, explains why it is so difficult to change. Who is going to suggest that their boss or male colleagues are sexist?"

Some senior female travel executives contacted for this report were hesitant to be quoted out of concern for how their comments would be interpreted.

Facebook's Sandberg put a statistical spin on a brutal truth that corporate life can't seem to shake: "Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women."

According to the Harvard Business Review, "women invite greater scrutiny than men and must scale a higher bar on a number of fronts. They must have 'executive presence' in their dress and bearing, but if they get it wrong, no one will tell them—least of all a senior male. Women must likewise navigate a minefield of unspoken judgments with regard to their personal lives. If they're married with children, their superiors and would-be sponsors presume they are less available, less flexible and less dedicated to their work—a cascade of assumptions that often labels them as unsuitable for top leadership positions. And yet a woman who lacks a spouse or offspring is viewed by colleagues and supervisors as not quite normal, someone whom married males in senior management reflexively avoid because they cannot relate to her or find her threatening. It's a classic Catch-22: a woman's private choices, whatever they may be, invariably brand her as 'not quite leadership material.' "

It would be wonderful to think that sexism is not a continuing factor, particularly in a business employing as many women as the travel industry. But we need look no further than the latest source of dirty industry laundry, the American Airlines-Sabre lawsuit. This was a case in which evidence—specifically, an email from one male executive to another—was disqualified by the judge because it contained language that was offensive to women.

Yet, Powers has "hope for the future generation."

U.S. Travel Association president and CEO Roger Dow said he has observed a marked increase in the number of female managers in "hotels and travel departments," although "the one area where that isn't so—but it's going to happen—is if I look at corporate CEOs. There's one more step in the next five to 10 years and you'll see a CEO roundtable with 20 percent women around it; five years later you'll see 40 percent women around it. That's the last piece."

If that happens, more female CEOs ought to drive an increase in women board members, as directors often are former CEOs.

Studies from Catalyst, McKinsey & Co. and others suggest that companies with fairer gender balances earn more money. Even short of that, the likes of Deloitte, General Electric, IBM, Johnson & Johnson and Morgan Stanley no doubt worry about competition for talent—not only within their industries, but also with the startup sector.

Another truth? There may never have been a better time for female entrepreneurs.

This report originally appeared in the Dec. 17, 2012, issue of Business Travel News. 

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